Wednesday, May 6, 2015

About "5 Horrifying Realities of Daily Life Edited out of History"

On 5 May 2015, Chris Fox's article "5 Horrifying Realities of Daily Life Edited out of History" appeared on As the title suggests, the piece details five facets of life common to earlier periods that purport to strike the expected readership of the website as terrifying or otherwise abhorrent. It moves away from the typical discussion of military technologies, seigneurial depredations, plague, and famine to the more quotidian toilet humor and unemployment troubles, as well as to the more esoteric spice trade. While some mention is made of both late imperial Roman and early modern English practice, the bulk of the article is focused on presentations of the Western medieval, depicting some of the less-commonly-understood challenges that the people of the European Middle Ages faced.

There are some problems, of course, with the presentation of the medieval offered by Fox's piece. It is somewhat sensationalist, although such is perhaps to be expected from offerings of a self-styled comedy website. It is also presentist in its biases, portraying the past as a time of terror from which current readers are likely to be excepted--although that, again, is perhaps to be expected. More locally to the article, though, the ordering of points is less than optimal. The excesses of the European spice trade do not seem to be more terrible than beatings for unemployment or the daily or more frequent occurrence of risky defecation--despite the rhetorical privileging afforded them by their placement at the end of the article.

Even so, Fox does a number of things well. The mere fact of reminding early twenty-first century readers of the European medieval serves as a useful, if small, counterpoint to prevalent short memories. The piece also usefully roots itself in current scholarship, working from the best available understandings at the time of its writing, and the involvement of ongoing research in the comedic piece helps remind readers that new knowledge of older events and activities is still being developed. (Admittedly, not all of the sources used are of equal scholarly quality. Again, however, the article is an offering on a comedy website.) Further, although perhaps unwittingly, the text accords with some of the most commonly studied written humor of medieval England; in moving to the scatological early, Fox's piece follows Chaucer's pattern in The Canterbury Tales, in which the jesting begins with fart jokes and references to cunnilingus or analingus in the ribaldry of the Miller.

In essence, then, Fox's piece may not be the best presentation of the medieval in current popular culture, but it is far from the worst that can be found.

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